Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fall'ing in Love

Fall is all around us... well, in the supermarket and in pictures of other places at least (and in Webkinz world, don't ask).

Hey, we're in perpetually sunny Arizona and we don't really do seasons here. When the wind blows or we get a 5 minute rain shower, we consider it major weather.

As I was reading books about fall to my kiddos a week or two ago, they kept looking at the fall colored trees in the books, the jackets and woodland animals. Then, looking out the window at the varying states of green and brown and the blazing sun out the window , they scratched their their heads in puzzlement. What is this magical fall anyways? Maybe Mommy is losing her marbles.

In order to compensate for our hometown's disdain for any real fall-like atmosphere in the great outdoors, my wonderful husband brought fall indoors to us. I cannot say enough about having a talented husband. People think I am the creative one, but design is in this man's blood (even if he would much rather be designing houses or buildings than rearranging knick knacks...).

Now I feel it is my duty to bring the flavors of fall into our home, now that the eyes have some fall (and Halloween) splendor to feast upon.

Bring on the pumpkin bread, the pumkin cookies, the warm pots of potato soup and cornbread...
(recipes and pictures to come soon)

If you haven't gotten in the mood for fall yet, go here and here to fall in love. I cannot wait to try that milkshake, which is much more appropriate fall fare for our 100 degree weather right now.

Fall, here we come!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

California Trip, Part Four: L.A., Calimesa and Beaumont

And finally, the last leg of our trip before trekking home again!

Carla and my little crew met Mike's parents in L.A. on Thursday. We met in West Hollywood to be exact, at the Schindler House. It was the architect's birthday, so we were able to tour it for free. Schindler, the architect, came to America to work for Frank Lloyd Wright and had an obvious affection for Japanese architecture. He actually lived in this home. Mike enjoyed soaking in the design. I especially loved that it was mainly unfurnished and open, so I didn't have to worry about the boys destroying any priceless antiques!

We found "our" street just a few blocks away from the house we toured. If only we could afford the houses on our street...

After the tour, we headed to Chinatown for a late lunch. It was fun to wander the area, but a little sad, because you could really tell that this economy has dampened the place. Many shops and restaurants were closed. It was fun to eat out, to try something new and be with family, but I'll admit, I have had better Chinese food here in Arizona.

At the end of lunch, we realized we would be in the thick of rush hour traffic if we started driving then. We had two choices. Sit in traffic for hours just to get out of the city or find somewhere else to visit in town for an hour or two until traffic lightened up a bit.

What would you choose?

Really, what choice is there? Of course we stayed and found something else to do. We headed for the hills and took a tour of the Griffith Observatory. They have a great museum inside as well as opportunity to view the skies through one of their telescopes, or you could view the skyline from the rooftop. This is a hidden gem in L.A., especially because it is FREE. Yes, you heard me, FREE!!

After a few hours at the observatory, we headed back to Calimesa/Beaumont to stay with the Kalanui's. Cousin time, here we come!

The boys loved playing with the kids. They played Nintendo Lego Star Wars, made cardboard forts in the front room, helped Renee make banana bread, and just enjoyed being together.

Mike and I had fun visiting and watching the kids play. Mike finally was able to "conquer the world" playing Risk with Kamuela and the girls. (Playing Risk is a family tradition and I don't think Mike considers it an official visit unless they've played at least once.)

Saturday afternoon, we said our thank you's and good bye's to our family and headed back to hot Arizona. It was a great trip, and again, an affirmation that you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good time with your family. We built memories for our children, and saw new things and strengthened our family bonds. What more could you ask for?

Now, for one last recipe, this one from my sister in law Renee.

Shoyu Chicken
3 lbs. chicken thighs (I prefer boneless, skinless, or if you really don't like dark meat, you can use breasts)
1 cup shoyu (soy sauce)

1 1/2 cups water

1 cup (or more, to your tastiness level) brown sugar

2 tsp. ground ginger, or if you have it, slice up 1-2 inches of fresh ginger root

Put all ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil (it's ok to use chicken that's still frozen). Simmer until chicken flakes apart when prodded by a fork (about 45 min.). If the flavor was yummy and you just don't want to waste the rest of the marinade, pour it into a freezer ziploc bag and freeze it for use another time!
Note: I usually make this recipe by intuition and taste. While it's simmering (important - make sure it's been boiling awhile so you are not tasting raw chicken fluids) you can taste the marinade and add more of any ingredient at any time to adjust the flavor. It should taste terryaki-ish. Enjoy!

Thanks for following along on our little trip down memory lane!

Monday, September 21, 2009

California Trip, Part Three: San Diego

Monday afternoon, we drove to San Diego to stay with Mike's sister Carla. We got in later in the evening. We couldn't wait to feel those cool ocean breezes!

Tuesday was spent on the beach, La Jolla Beach to be precise. Here's a sampling of what we did at the beach.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the beach.

We played in the sand.

We played in the water.

Carla, Mike and Andrew decided to go boogie board.

Andrew decided boogie boarding is not for four-year-olds.
Carla and Mike went out boogie boarding without Andrew.

Ben decided to do a little sand surfing.

We walked to the tide pools.

We found some creatures, some amazing rocks, and of course, lots of puddles at the tide pools.

The boys crashed in the car, exhasted from a day of sand and sun.

Wednesday was spent at the San Diego Zoo. I have to say, if the Phoenix Zoo could visit the San Diego Zoo, it would be jealous indeed! (Sorry Phoenix, I still do love you!)

Here are just a few of our favorite exhibits at the zoo.
The "wild exhibit" that crawled up Carla's leg and was almost stomped to death.
How close can you get to a hippo?
Shhh... don't disturb the pandas!
Good thing Andrew is so strong and courageous, saving Auntie Carla from the perils of being stomped by an elephant..

Watch out for the fierce saber-toothed tigers!

We planned on heading back to the beach after the zoo, but it was just too fun there, so we stayed most of the day.

Thursday's last stop in San Diego was a quick visit to the San Diego Temple grounds on our way to L.A. What a beautiful spot to end our time in San Diego! We had so much fun with Carla. She is always ready to entertain the boys and she's full of great stories about her work and great tidbits about Mike and her childhood escapades. Mike and I joke that when we "strike it rich" we are moving to San Diego. Having family to visit there makes it an even more enticing fantasy. One must continue to dream...

Here is Carla's fantastic recipe for Greek-style Pita Sandwiches:
ground meat (approx 1 lb.) we used ground turkey, but you could use beef or chicken
1 small can of diced tomatoes, blended (or tomato sauce if that's on hand and you are lazy like me and don't want to clean your blender)
lemon pepper
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
feta cheese (we used an herb-flavored feta)
diced tomatoes
washed baby spinach
pita bread

Brown the meat, adding lemon pepper to taste and part (you won't come close to using the whole can, I used about 1/2 the can of an 8 oz. tomato sauce) of your tomato sauce, enough to absorb into the meat and flavor it. You don't want the meat to be soupy, you can always add more tomato if meat still seems too dry.

Make the sauce by combining the sour cream and mayonnaise. Add a few large handfuls of feta cheese and lemon pepper to taste to the mixture.

Assemble the pitas by cutting open your pita pocket and spooning in some of your sauce. Add the meat and spinach. Sprinkle diced tomatoes on top and enjoy!

Next stop, L.A., Beaumont, Calimesa, and Renee's Shoyu Chicken...

Friday, September 18, 2009

California Trip, Part Two: Bakersfield

I have to admit, I have heard a lot of less than flattering descriptions of Bakersfield. I wasn't expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised to find a charming town. Mike's brother Joe and his wife Jenny were blessing their sweet baby girl Catherine, so off we drove to their home in Bakersfield on Sunday morning.
Early Sunday morning.
So early the sun wasn't up yet, as Andrew grumpily reminded us as we woke him up to get into the car once again.

We got to Bakersfield just in time for church. I was humbled to be able to sit with my family and listen as Joe gave a simple and sweet blessing to his first born, nestled in the arms of her father, uncles and grandfathers. What a precious gift the priesthood is. To listen to a father, with a gentle strength, using this power to give her a name and to invoke the blessings of Heaven upon his child.

After church, we had a delicious family dinner at Jenny and Joe's home. (More on the dinner recipe later...) We enjoyed good food and good company, as most of Mike's family (we missed you Dan and Traci) and Jenny's family were there. We even got a quick photo shoot with all of the Croft grandkids together.

We stayed overnight in Bakersfield, while most of the rest of the family traveled home. On Monday, we had a fun little picnic at a nearby park. This park had all of the regular park necessities: sand, playground equipment, large shady trees, bbq's, water fountains and bathrooms. Even better, was that this park had a splash pad to play in as well.

As it was Labor Day, the park was busy, but didn't feel crowded. We had a simple lunch and enjoyed the mild weather in the shade of a giant tree. The boys played on the playground and befriended a few of the other children playing as well.

Then, we took them to the splash pad. They were both excited to try it out. Ben found the mud before discovering the water. Why am I not surprised...

Andrew loved jumping around in the spray. Ben got one good squirt of water, discovered it was COLD and he was done.

It was so fun to hold a baby in my arms again... Catherine was so sweet and she put up with a lot of extra cuddles and attention from her extended family. It was good to visit with Joe and Jenny and spend time with them. They are sweet parents. It is times like this that you wish your family was closer...

Now, on to another fabulous recipe!

This one is from one of Jenny's friends, it may be a Weight Watchers recipe.
I can't wait to try them out.
They are very dense and brownie-like.
Chocolate that is much better for you.
You can't beat that!

Chocolate Muffins
1 box Devil's food cake mix
1 15 oz. can of pumpkin
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup water

Mix ingredients together and divide between 2 greased regular muffin tins. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Next stop, San Diego, Auntie Carla and delicious Greek-style pita sandwiches!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

California Trip, Part One

I've decided to post our trip in a series of posts, one for leg of our trip. Because this is more of a "journally" post, I've decided to add a recipe onto each part.

Why? Because a: I have some great cooks in my California family and b: Let's be honest, sometimes family vacation posts can get a bit boring.

Back to part one, we started our trip in Calimesa, staying with Mike's parents. We didn't get there until late Friday night.

Mike and I have complained in the past that we haven't had any real exciting monsoon weather for the past few years in Arizona (except that crazy storm last year that practically uprooted every other tree in Tempe...), but on our drive Friday night, we hit the storm to make up for all of that. I wish I had pictures of all of it because it was spectacular. However, little sunlight, moving cars, and a simple camera do not result in spectacular pictures. I'll just have to paint a picture with words for this one.

First off, as we drove out of Phoenix, there was an impressive mass of clouds looming over us as the sun began to set, with a little square of sunlight peeking through the middle of the mass. A perfect, heavenly, picture window. It was if Heavenly Father could be sitting on the other side of those clouds, just looking out His window and smiling at us all below. A little reassuring wink to let us know we are being cared for.

As we drove nearer to the California border, the clouds and the sky began to darken. Suddenly, we could see what looked like a dense fog or dust cloud settling on the road ahead. It felt like driving into a wall of haze. Fittingly, we were listening to In Rainbows by Radiohead. Just as we entered this bank of haze, "Weird Fishes" began to play and the rain began to fall, gently at first, then heavier as we went on. I have never been in a hurricane or a tornado, but I imagine that what we were experiencing was something akin to being in the eye. It was turbulent around us, with an eerie calm as we drove, the wind, rain and lightning surrounding us. We had quite the lightning show and continued driving in the eye of the storm for about 40 minutes until we finally broke away into calmer weather. It was better than any movie I have ever seen.

On Saturday, Mike and his brother and sister (Josh and Denise) helped his dad move some house stuff to their new home in Oceanside. I stayed in Calimesa with the boys. After lunch, we drove over to my sister- and brother-in-laws' house to play with the cousins. The boys loved that.

After we all got back to the house, we ate dinner. Yummy chicken tacos.

Here's my mother-in-law's creative twist on making chicken tacos:

She cooks chicken tenderloins in a covered pot on the stovetop along with a can of Mexican stewed tomatoes, letting them boil and then shredding the meat and tomato mixture. It is a great and easy way to impart a little extra flavor into your meat and turns out so tender. Then you assemble your soft corn tortilla tacos with any desired toppings (sour cream, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, avacado...). Just warm the tortillas up without frying them. Trust me, it still tastes good without all of the grease.

I love a simple and healthy meal!

Next stop, Bakersfield and an easy chocolate muffin that's good for you!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Travel Treasures

We are now back in hot, dry Arizona, after a fun-filled week with family in California. Now that there is food in my fridge again, and clean clothes to wear, I can sit down and blog about our adventure.

Today is part one: Travel Treasures, aka stuff we brought with us/made to keep our kids entertained this time.

I found some fabulous ideas for activities online that I had bookmarked for some time. I snuck in a few moments here and there to put together some "goodies" for the boys.

First off, I found this idea from Chasing Cheerios (fabulous blog with ideas for the toddler/preschool set). I already had the tangram pieces, and I cut up old refrigerator magnet ads and double-stick taped them to the back of the pieces. I don't have a laminator (oh how I wish...), but I did have some clear contact paper, so I laminated them that way. I used our little pan from our toaster oven to stick the shapes to. (Hooray for free crafts!) This was one of the best activities for Andrew. The pictures are still a bit difficult for him to recreate, but he gave it a good "college try" and enjoyed just manipulating the shapes into his own designs. This idea is a definite keeper.

I found this idea on Totally Tots from Making Learning Fun. I wanted it to be more portable, so I hole punched the contact paper laminated cards and attached them to an o-ring, and added velcro to the pieces and to the shapes on the cards. I put the pieces in a snack sized ziploc baggie and attached it to the ring as well. I was originally thinking this would be fun for Ben (he's really into shapes and colors right now), but Andrew liked matching them. Honestly, they didn't really play with this one on our trip, but I still think they'll love playing with it another time.

I also decided to make two Tot Books for the boys, one for Andrew (Cars) and one for Ben (Farm). I LOVE this concept. Carissa, who runs this site, has lots of great preschool ideas, and was a former kinder teacher, too. I will be doing more of these in the future. The boys didn't really use the farm book (something fun for another time), but I changed the format of the Cars Tot Book, and made the mini books into pull out mini books (I didn't glue them onto the folder, I created a pocket to store them in and put rings on the spines so they would open and close more easily) so that they could pull them out of the folder.

So, after all of my printing, cutting, assembling madness, I was feeling pretty good about my abilities to entertain my kids on the cheap (well, on the "free" is more like it). Then, a thoughtful friend came over and dropped off this basket of treasures for my kids. Even more fun! Inside were treats, baby books for Ben, cars, some activity books for Andrew, and wet wipes. One of the books was a Suprise ink book with a magic marker. When you color on the pages, hidden pictures appear. Andrew especially loved this one. I will be looking for those again.

Here's Andrew's idea of coloring with the suprise ink:

Here's Ben's idea of coloring with the suprise ink:

Note to self: Keep suprise ink away from toddlers.

Another note to self: Suprise ink comes out of clothes fairly well with a little Shout (thank goodness).

It was fun to have lots of little suprises to give the boys on each leg of our trip. It kept them excited about being on the road again, and meant much less whining (ya for mom and dad!).

More on our trip to come...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Summer Wrap-up... almost

For us, we are kind of in denial that summer is over. Andrew has been going to preschool for almost a month now (and loves it). I am now babysitting a few weeks in the month at home and substitute teaching when I can. Mike is still looking for work/ working part time as a contract employee for his former company. We are busy, but our "real" summer vacation is coming in a few days.

Come Labor Day weekend, we are heading to sunny California to visit Mike's family and enjoy a little time away. Andrew's not happy about missing a few days of school, but he was more excited when presented the opportunity to visit his cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles and to play on the beach.

I have been busy putting together a few activities to keep the boys happy in the car. I'll post more on that later...

This summer has been full of highlights and lowlights. I find it so amazing that you really do appreciate the little things so much more during and after the time you weather the storms of life.

Two of the biggest lessons learned this summer are as follows.

One, I know, even more than before, that we have a loving Heavenly Father who helps each one of us along in our individual struggles and sorrows, as well as in the good times. We have witnessed His love and have felt His guidance along our journey in our own family. There is truly peace in righteous doing and hope amidst the storm.

Second, you can create happy memories at home just doing the simple things together. Eating meals as a family, playing a game, going to the zoo (when it's not 110 degrees...), swimming, even doing chores. I have learned to be more creative on a tight (and I mean TIGHT) budget, and I can honestly say, I am a better mom because of it.

This summer of table talks has been a great adventure and I have learned so much from the other moms out there. Thank you! I hope you all were able to experience your own summer highlights.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

In the Pantry

Does anyone else need to go through their pantry and check expiration dates?

(Yes, this can does say, expires on Dec. 2006...)